by Tony Wyman
After campaigning on the pledge to pull all American troops from Afghanistan, President Trump reversed course in August and announced a new plan that, essentially, continued President Obama‘s strategy, with one major change.
That change, putting pressure on the Taliban‘s sponsor, Pakistan, is a major course correction from the Obama Administration’s failed strategy that allowed the Taliban to resurge in the mountainous country. But will it succeed?
In the president’s first major foreign policy address of his time in office, delivered on August 21, he committed the U.S. to adding 4000 troops to the 8500 already there fighting America’s longest war, following what the Washington Post described as “protracted deliberations that deeply divided the administration.”
According to the Post, the president was furious that commanders on the ground and in the White House Situation Room couldn’t give him better options to combat Muslim insurgents threatening the stability of the corrupt and ineffective Afghan national government.
“Last month, as Trump mulled over a new strategy in a 16-year conflict that bedeviled his predecessors,” the Post reported, “he groused that sending additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan could have negligible impact. He threatened to fire the current commander there. He flirted with privatizing the military effort. He even considered pulling out. Declaring victory seemed all but impossible.”
The president is likely right that sending 4000 troops will have little impact on the military situation on the ground, a situation so dire that Voice of America referred to Afghan losses as “shockingly high,” but what may have an impact is the second part of the administration’s strategy: putting diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to end their support of the Taliban.
“When Secretary (Jim) Mattis said this would be a South Asia strategy, that tells up a lot,” said John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush. “The big issue wasn’t land-war tactics. The big issue is Pakistan.”
Putting Pakistan Under Pressure
What Ambassador Bolton was referring to was a recent speech by Secretary Mattis where the retired general outlined a departure from the Obama Administration policy of announcing troop withdrawals to pressure the Afghan government to learn to stand on their own two feet without relying endlessly on American military might to keep the Taliban away from areas the government wished to control.
Instead, the new Trump strategy ends the announcements of troop withdrawals and shifts to employing diplomatic pressure on Pakistan, long thought to be doing little, if anything, effective to end the Taliban’s ability to attack targets across the border in Afghanistan.
By making an open-ended commitment of military support to the Afghan government, President Trump is changing two things.
First, the Taliban will have to change its strategy of waiting out American troops slowly withdrawing from the region to a strategy of active engagement with Afghan troops and their American advisers to force withdrawals from coveted territory if they wish to gain more ground.
“If I was an insurgent, I would wait until the Americans left and try my luck with the ANSF,” said U.S. Army Captain Michael Wallace in 2014, using the acronym for the Afghan National Security Forces. “When we’re with them, they can make us have bad days, but they’re never going to win.”
Second, President Trump is shifting pressure from the Afghan government, which is still unable to exert influence over the entire country due to incompetence, corruption, tribalism and meddling from its neighbor to the east, to Pakistan to force elements of the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.
Whether this strategy will work is anyone’s guess – the Pakistani intelligence service, long thought of as a sponsor of the Taliban, will oppose it – and will depend largely on whether American negotiators can show their Pakistani counterparts that their attempts to destabilize Afghanistan by secretly cooperating with the Taliban is fruitless.
Why Pakistan Supports the Taliban
Currently, Pakistan is seeking what is called “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, helping Islamabad compete with its regional rival India and to limit Iranian influence in the country. It also has an existential interest in maintaining the Durand Line, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan established by the British in 1896.
Despite being widely seen as the legal western border of Pakistan, Afghanistan doesn’t officially recognize it, with former Afghan President Hamid Karzai saying his country would “never recognize” the border. Because the two countries disagree on the legitimacy of the line, Pakistan has a political interest in making sure the Afghan government never gets strong enough to regain lost territory taken from the country when the British set the border.
Considering Pakistan is both a nuclear power with a military that could easily brush aside the Afghan forces, the only way Afghanistan could realistically regain the disputed territory is if the Pakistani government completely collapsed following a catastrophic war with India or a civil war in the country.
To shield itself from those things happening, Pakistan allies itself with global powers, such as the United States or China, to insure its security against India, the country’s greatest rival.
Author and military historian Joseph Micallef, described the conflict over the Durand Line as the central issue separating the countries and guiding Islamabad’s strategic support of the Taliban.
“The byzantine complexity of Afghan-Pakistani-Indian relations and the subsequent interest of Russia, China, and the United States in any changes in the status quo means that barring a negotiated settlement for some kind of division of the disputed territories or an Afghan acceptance of the Durand Line in exchange for the end of Pakistani support for the Taliban, either of which are highly unlikely events at the moment, there is no immediate solution to the Afghan-Pakistani dispute over the Durand Line,” he wrote for Military.com. “This issue will continue to complicate the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan for the foreseeable future.”
Pakistan’s machinations in the region and tacit support of the Taliban infuriates a number of observers, including conservative publications like Forbes Magazine, which called for the U.S. and Europe to take punishing action against the country.
“The government of Afghanistan invited the Taliban to talks, but the Taliban refused,” the magazine said in February. “Now, Pakistan must take action against cross-border Taliban terrorists in Pakistan, That will be politically impossible within Pakistan until the U.S. and E.U. take very tough economic and diplomatic measures. It is time to label Pakistan a state sponser of terrorism, and support targeted sanctions against select military- and intelligence-linked Pakistani companies.”
Should We Get Out Now?
Ratcheting up the pressure on Pakistan is a goal of the Trump plan as leaders in the administration believe it is the only way to reign in the Taliban. The bottom line appears to be that without active cooperation from Pakistan putting military, economic and political pressure on the Taliban, Afghanistan’s situation on the ground will get no better.
After the loss of more than 2400 U.S. military personnel and more than 3500 international contractors, plus the expenditure of billions of American dollars, the president is gambling on his ability to get cooperation from Pakistan to solve the problem and get the U.S. out of its Afghan quagmire.
That gamble, some observers think, is dubious, at best, even if it is an improvement over the Obama strategy that wasn’t showing results. The question is, will the Trump strategy have any better chance at succeeding or is it just delaying the inevitable at the expense of more American lives and treasure?
Doug Bandow, international politics writer for Forbes, thinks it is the latter.
“The most tempting policy might be to follow President Obama’s approach – add a few more troops, accompanied by lots of positive rhetoric. Yet a few more combat boots won’t transform a conflict which has continued in one form or another for years.
All that strategy would achieve is to out off the inevitable withdrawal, which will be seen as a retreat and ultimately defeat. But the loss would occur on the next president’s watch, albeit at the cost of hundreds or thousands of American and allied lives.”
If all we are going to get from the Trump Administration shift in policy is four more years of attrition and stalemate in Afghanistan, should we invest more lives and treasure in a nation that seems unable or unwilling to govern itself?
It seems the White House is willing to give American diplomatic power a chance before confronting the decision to withdraw head on or handing it off to whomever occupies the presidency in 2020. The months ahead should tell us which direction the U.S. will go.